Roof-raising revival meetings held in 1923 by colorful traveling evangelist Billy Sunday launched a movement to help the poor in Niagara Falls.
Nearly 94 years later, the agency formed by several churches in the Cataract City after Sunday's revival meetings continues to feed, clothe, shelter and assist the poor and homeless, as well as those facing other physical, social and emotional challenges.
Community Missions of the Niagara Frontier, Inc., which started as City Mission, has not only survived the decades of turmoil and change, it has grown. Now the largest private provider of emergency aid to the homeless, the agency also provides varied mental health and recovery services, ranging from two supervised community residences to help for families in crisis.
At this time of year, with temperatures plunging, many communities ramp up their outreach and assistance to the homeless. This year, a state mandate that Code Blue emergency shelters take aggressive steps to aid the homeless when the temperature reaches 32 degrees, a significant increase from the previous 15 degrees, has many municipalities offering new options to help the homeless.
In Niagara Falls, Community Missions just slightly sharpens its focus on the shelter it has offered for so many years, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. "Because we are who we are, anyone can seek services at the agency in any temperature," said longtime Community Missions Executive Director Robyn Krueger. The agency has spots for about 47 residents at any given time, she said.
In the month of December, Community Missions hosted 22 people under Code Blue for a total of 30 nights. "We had some people who were just one night, others sought shelter sporadically through the month," she said. Overall for December, the agency's Crisis Services housed 90 individuals for 1,008 nights.
Initially housed in the Congregational Church, Community Missions moved into what was called "inadequate quarters" at Second and Main streets, then in the late 1950s to the former Salvation Army Citadel at 228 First St. Then, in 1972, the Mission bought a vintage tourist hotel, the Hiawatha Lodge on Buffalo Avenue between 13th Street and Portage Road. The motel's setup enabled the agency to house the homeless and transient in semi-private rooms with bathrooms, rather than the large, open dormitories many shelters must use.
In 1981, the agency bought the Ivanhoe Inn next door and joined them with a covered walkway.
In most of the rooms, two residents share a bathroom with a shower. Two larger rooms of six beds are set aside for men and women, and a double room with a living space, kitchenette and separate bedroom is reserved for families.
Christian Hoffman, communications and development manager for Community Missions, pointed out a cozy living area reserved for residents that can be pressed into service for a Code Blue emergency sleeping area if needed. "After that we would use the lobby if needed," he said.
"The priorities are warmth, food, clothing and showers," said Krueger. So in September, when the agency, with the help of the Home Depot Foundation and local Home Depot employees, joined two residence rooms to form a new, spacious Clothes Closet to offer free clothing and small housewares, they kept a private bathroom with a shower.
"Human dignity and respect are key," said Krueger.
"The majority of the individuals who come to us under Code Blue are not interested in ongoing services," said Krueger. "They are strictly here to get out of the weather, and that's fine."
Because Community Missions has no funding for a van or outreach workers to find and bring the homeless to the shelter, the agency works closely with the Niagara Falls Police Department, whose officers try to persuade the homeless to accept a ride to the shelter on Code Blue nights.
"The police are proactive during Code Blue alerts, said Krueger. "If they see somebody on the streets in the evening, they will ask them, 'Do you have a place to stay? Do you need to go to the Mission?'"
Superintendant Bryan DalPorto serves on the board of directors of the agency, said Krueger. "We have very good relationships with the police."
"Part of Code Blue is that we are to engage and encourage," the homeless to come in out of the cold, "but if people aren't interested, you can't make somebody do something they don't want to do," said Krueger.
The agency gets some funding from the City of Niagara Falls, and some from benefits paid to residents. The holiday appeal resulted in "wonderful support; we were actually ahead of the 2015 campaign," said Krueger. "the community has been extremely generous, we're very fortunate to have the partners, providers and donors that we have."
In some circles, the stigma of the homeless as lazy still persists, Krueger said. "There are so many factors that put people into crisis. If you took someone's paycheck away for two months, where would the majority of people be?"